OCCASIONALLY a public opinion survey surfaces that signals a seismic event. That is the case with a report from the Pew Research Center that measures the widening tremors of a political earthquake now shaking Europe.
Although the report leads with evidence that Europeans are increasingly losing faith in the EU (which I wrote about here), the more troubling problem is the fast-growing divide between France and Germany. This schism is ripping apart the bonds that have held Europe together for 60 years — just when they are most urgently needed.
There is a second, powerful underlying message: Germany has more economic weight and political will to determine Europe’s future than it has had since the Second World War. But it now lacks a partner that can replace France’s pivotal importance.
Beyond that, Germans are increasingly out of step with most other Europeans in their economic optimism, their faith in their national political leadership, and their continued support for European institutions.
About 75% of Germans consider their economic situation good or very good, despite the country’s recent economic slowdown. At the same time, more than two thirds of those surveyed in seven other countries — Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland, and Czech Republic — are dissatisfied with their economies.
“The increasing alienation of Germany from the rest of Europe is quite striking,” says Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. “The Germans seem to be living on a different continent than the French. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they are living on a different planet.”
The relationship hasn’t just broken down at elite levels, beginning with the much-publicised personal and ideological differences between French President François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
The French and Germans are increasingly divided in their attitudes toward their leaders, their economic futures, and the very value of the European project.
“That is unprecedented and profoundly challenging,” says Stokes. “It may mean that the Europeans have to find a new glue if they are to hold Europe together, and find a new motor to advance the European cause.”
Some argue that if September’s German elections produce a Social Democratic government or if Europe experiences sustained economic growth, the picture will be altered. Yet Europe’s economic prospects are for slow growth for several years. And no German electoral shift can change realities that mark a reordering of the continent between a French-led south and German-led north.
By almost every economic measure, the gap between Germany and France is growing, underscoring their differences in global competitiveness.
France’s share of government spending as a percentage of the overall economy has ballooned to 56%, compared with 45% in Germany. French unemployment is 11%, more than double Germany’s 5.4%.
France’s trade deficit widened to €68bn in 2012, while Germany posted a trade surplus of €190bn.
What all this means is that France, the traditional “connector” between the European south and the north (think Germany), is heading south — literally and figuratively.
As Pew lays it out: “France has always bridged Europe’s north and south. French language and culture has Latin roots, but France has historically been considered in the same economic and political league as Germany and Britain.
“And in their public attitudes the French were neither northerners nor southerners, but a hybrid of the two. Now, measured by a number of indicators, the French look less like Germans and a lot more like the Spanish, the Italians, and the Greeks.”
The Franco-German relationship has never been easy. After all, the driving purpose behind the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, compelling the two countries to pool their means of war, was to ensure they could never engage in such hostilities again.
The high-water mark in their relations was probably 1984, as then West German chancellor Helmut Kohl and then French president François Mitterrand clasped hands for several minutes, a moment captured in an iconic photograph taken during a rain-soaked commemoration at the First World War battlefield at Verdun, where the two sides suffered more than 700,000 casualties.
The two men signed a declaration there that read: “France and Germany have learnt lessons from our history. Europe is our common fatherland. We are heirs of a grand European tradition. That is why, 40 years ago, we ended our fratricidal war and began to build our future together. We were reconciled, we came to an agreement, we became friends, European unification is our common goal.”
Now the two sides are exchanging fusillades of press leaks.
Le Monde published a leaked French Socialist Party document that brands Merkel as “chancellor of austerity” and says her actions were driven by “selfish intransigence” and a desire to protect German savings. Handelsblatt, the German business paper, published a leaked document from the economics ministry that derided declining French competitiveness, noting France has the second-lowest annual working hours in the EU.
The outcome of this new divide won’t be war. But it’s hard to imagine Hollande clasping hands with Merkel, despite the occasional embrace on the European stage.
It seems almost inevitable that the next test of the durability of the French-German relationship will come when financial markets turn their firepower on Paris.
*Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, and a veteran Wall Street Journal editor and reporter